First let me begin by saying that some people call her Isla Isabel while others may refer to her as Isla Isabela. Isabela is what you might see on charts and plotters, however I have chosen to go with what the Mexican government calls her which is Isla Isabel. No matter what one chooses to call her, Isla Isabel is truly paradise on earth!
Imagine sailing into a tropical anchorage. The water is so clear you can see the colorful fish as they perform their elegant and perfectly timed water ballet beneath your boat.
The beach is white and the island itself is covered with lush, green, tropical foliage. Large waves slap the rocks that line a portion of the shore and with each slap they burst into peaks of white foam leaping into the air as if to say, “Look at me!” Soaring above the island in the sapphire blue sky are literally thousands and thousands of birds riding the air currents and swooping down into the trees searching for a suitable place to call home. The intense cackling of the birds can be heard clearly as you lower your anchor and prepare for your stay in utopia! Yes, Isla Isabel is truly a sight to behold and one that should not be missed if you can help it.
Isabel is a volcanic island located approximately 15 miles from the west coast of mainland Mexico and 90 miles south of Mazatlán. The island is a little less than a half a mile wide and three quarters of a mile long and was deemed a National Park on December 8th, 1980. It’s often been said it was one Jacques Cousteau’s favorite places and that Cousteau himself actually made the recommendation to the Mexican government to designate this island as a National Park. He spent a great deal of time here and has aired many specials on this fabulous gem. One visit here is all it takes to understand his love for the island.
The days we spent here we had 50’+ visibility through the crystal clear waters. From the boat you could look down and see our anchor lying on the sea floor. There were colorful fish of all shapes and sizes swimming around Dazzler making it feel as if we were living on top of a tropical aquarium. Now we’ve seen some pretty clear water in the Sea of Cortez but this was simply amazing. I think what made it extra special is the abundance of sea life here. We even got to swim with a sea turtle. We’ve seen many of them on this journey but they pop their head up out of the water for a brief moment and then they are gone. It’s so quick it’s difficult to get a decent photo. Not here, here we were able to follow one and capture a little video as well. (Check out Part II of Isla Isabel coming out on Sunday, December 10th, 2017)
And while the sea life and water are truly spectacular, the life on land was just as riveting. Isla Isabel is known for her extensive bird population including nine species of seabirds. I have never seen so many birds in one place. If you don’t like birds, I recommend you stay on your boat but if you do you will miss a truly exceptional adventure. We, on the other hand, love the wildlife and were excited to take a trip on shore to experience it up close and personal.
You can anchor your boat in the southern anchorage that is just east of the fishing village but you need to be cautious of the rocks. There are many. They are more like boulders than rocks and cruisers have been known to call them “anchor eaters”. We chose to anchor on the east side of the island near the monoliths and were glad we did because the swell hitting the southern anchorage was pretty big during our stay. The boats anchored there were really rockin’ and a rollin’. When we arrived at the island the Guardia del Parque (Park Guards) were there on their pangas to tell us where we could drop the hook. Apparently there are some coral beds on the east side of the island these days and they want to be sure the cruisers are not harming them.
At first Dan wasn’t very happy about where we were told to drop the anchor as it was a bit close to the monoliths for our taste. When I say close, we were a little less than 300’ from the underwater shelf that surrounds them. As a rule we tend to anchor a bit further out so if weather comes in and we need to bug out we have a little extra room to maneuver but when in their waters you abide by their rules or you move on. That said we stayed where we were for three days and didn’t have any issues with the anchor dragging or getting caught on any rocks. Captain Dan does recommend that you put a float on your anchor line whether you are in the southern or eastern anchorage. This will help you to retrieve your anchor should it get caught in the anchor eaters.
One day we took the dinghy ashore to explore the island. In the water as you approach the east end and of the fishing village you see these dome shaped objects just below the surface. They are underwater habitats for lobster and other small fish. Once you reach the shore you will see a dozen or so of these creations sitting on the beach. I’d never seen or heard of such a thing before. The Mexicans are not particularly known for their concern over the ecosystem so it’s nice to see this, even if it is just a small attempt to help preserve the sea life.
We landed the dinghy on the beach at the fishing village which is a perfect spot to start exploring. On the southeast side of the village there is a peninsula where you can walk to the top of what I refer to as “Boobie Rock”. There were hundreds of brown-footed boobies nesting there. The cool thing about this place is that the wildlife literally has no fear of humans. You can get within a foot or two of these beautiful birds and their nests and they won’t even move. We tried to give them a little more space to help ensure they keep their friendly nature. On Boobie Rock we saw nests with eggs, newborn birds, juveniles and their parents. It was so awesome!
From the top of Boobie Rock you can see fabulous views of the anchorage and the fishing village. Giant waves crash upon the rocky point on the east side of the southern anchorage as the swells come rolling in. There are small tidal pools that are intermingled amongst the rocky shore and iguanas and snake lizards lie upon the warm rocks sunning themselves as the birds soar overhead.
Looking back upon the fishing village you see green huts sitting side by side along the beach with panga boats lined up on the beach in front of them. A dozen or so Mexican fishermen mill about working on their nets and boats. Others are tucked beneath the trees taking a well-deserved siesta in battered hammocks.
After our trip up to Boobie Rock we prepared to head toward the conversation building up on the hill. This is an open-air building that is a place for researchers and eco tourists to camp while on the island. Note that you can’t just set up camp on the island. You must arrange to camp there through one of the approved companies located in San Blas. Having been there, I think I’d prefer to stay on our boat and just visit. There are lots of creepy creatures who have no fear of humans! Just saying!
We started our journey across the beach to the west end of the fishing village. From there we found a path made of loosely laid slabs of rock that lead up to the conservation building. As we made our way through the canopy of trees I was struck by the sounds of the birds. Their prehistoric calls made it seem as if I had been transported back into the land of dinosaurs. It was almost eerie at first.
Dan told me to keep my eyes open as we walked. He said there would be large iguanas all over and he was right. Some lay just under the long grass along side the path, others peeked out from beneath bushes or rocks but most were in plain sight. If you see a sunny spot you are likely to see a large iguana warming itself in the afternoon sun.
When we arrived at the conservation building I was stunned by the number of iguanas just hanging out there. Some were orange and yellow, some were green and others were more gray in color making them hard to see on the concrete floors. We rounded the corner from one hall to another and I nearly stepped on one about five feet long. Ironically enough, he scared the devil out of me but he never even flinched. He looked up at me as if to say, “What are you freaking out about lady? Chill out. I’m taking a nap here.” From that point on I was much more cautious about where I put my feet.
After exploring the open air building we headed up the hill a bit further where the Frigatebirds were nesting. The treetops in this area are only about five or six feet tall. The Frigatebrids literally covered the trees and they were constantly jockeying for position on a nest. At one point a bird left its nest and others started swooping in to take branches from the nest to make one of their own. They were screeching and fighting for each little twig.
Here we were able to get amazingly close to these awesome birds. The Frigatebird can have a wingspan upwards of 7.5 – 10’! Imagine having them swoop down toward you only to miss you by mere inches. It was unbelievable! The males have a red throat pouch that they puff up to get the attention of the females during mating season. When they puff the pouch they make this low guttural sound followed by a clicking sound made with their beaks. The females fly overhead peering down to choose their mate from the sea of male birds. Ladies…think how nice it would be if finding the perfect mate was that easy!
From the Frigatebird nesting area we could have continued up the path to the top of the ridge as there is a trail that leads there and then along the ridge. We, however, chose to return to the beach and head through the woods toward the eastern shore. The path for this trail begins behind the fishing camp and to the east of the pond there. This is not a hike for the casual hiker. There are steep stone stairs that go up and down and the path is curvy, narrow and not all that forgiving. During our hike we saw some truly huge iguanas. One had to be close to seven feet long! When you see something like that and you are hearing all of these ancient sounds from the birds you really feel as if you’ve been transported back in time.
Our plan was to head to the eastern beach to see the blue-footed boobies but we never made it. My fault! I only brought one bottle of water with us as I didn’t realize we would be making a major hike. Sometimes Dan forgets to explain the finite details of our planned shore excursions to me. It was pretty warm that day and about three quarters of the way there I gave up. It’s not like me but I was having issues breathing and my legs were trembling. I was getting very overheated and the last thing I wanted to do was pass out in this prehistoric landscape so we turned around. Later I regretted the decision but I still think it was probably for the best.
Yes, the shore adventure here at Isabel was truly a highlight of my life and I hope someday to return. Just being so close to these amazing wild animals makes you appreciate their beauty and splendor that much more. It’s no wonder this was one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite places. I know it certainly is one of mine!
Later that day after a break and a couple of cool refreshing Pacificos on Dazzler we went snorkeling around the monoliths. Check back on Sunday, December 10th for Part II of our trip to Isabel. There will be lots of great photos and video of our underwater exploration.
Until next time,